Ministers who returned with His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio from the combined trips of a state visit and the Forum for Africa-China Cooperation Summit (FOCAC) in Beijing have addressed the press on sector specific interests.
Present at the conference hall of the Ministry of Information and Communications at Youyi Building in Freetown were the Finance Minister, Jacob Jusu Saffa, Development and Economic Planning Minister, Nabeela Tunis, Agriculture Minister, Joseph Ndanema, Information and Communications Minister, Mohamed Rhaman Swaray, Trade Minister, Peter Bayuku Conteh, and Press Secretary and Presidential Spokesman, Yusuf Keketoma Sandi.
Mr Saffa, who stayed in China, after the team returned, to complete a series of meetings, said there was need to firm up talks and get commitment around priority projects, debt negotiations and cancellation and to build investor confidence. He said because the New Direction government wanted to engage the Chinese on a win-win partnership on the Lungi Bridge project and others, they thought they must have their own independent data which they were now working on to help them negotiate from a position of strength.
“The Chinese government is giving us RMB 250 million, approximately US$ 40m, as budgetary support. This, in addition to our debt being cancelled, will help our current effort of economic expansion, exchange rate stabilisation and will boost the country as an emerging market,” he said, and assured journalists that they were confident in the content of their negotiations with the Chinese so far.
He said with the Chinese they hoped to access private capital that would not put contingent liability on the government, in the sense that the interest rate would be within reach in the form of concessional loans and which could be paid over a long term period, adding that that arrangement was compatible with Sierra Leone People’s Party government’s strategy.
“You don’t want to go for a loan with over 25 per cent interest rate and that you pay over a five year period, or a loan that creates problems for you. China is a very good source for private capital. It has worked for countries like South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that have developed massive projects ranging from US$1 billion to US$3 billion and up to US$5 billion in Ethiopia and other places,” he said, adding that the government was working on plausible projects that would attract huge grants and concessional loans from the US$60 billion the Chinese government had put aside for Africa.
The minister of agriculture said they explored opportunities around seed production and investment in rice cultivation and irrigation technology to improve on farming outputs and achieve the ultimate goal of adding value to raw materials. He said when they visited the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre in the Hunan Province, they were addressed by scientists and had discussions on the possibility of knowledge transfer.
“Apart from that, the Chinese Government have agreed to provide 50 scholarships annually to the government for Sierra Leoneans to specialise in different disciplines. Also, they have agreed to help us with 6,100 metric tonnes (about 122,000 bags) of rice,” Mr Ndanema disclosed.
While the trade minister talked on his engagement with potential investors, the minister of development, Mrs Tunis, reiterated the fact that inasmuch as the FOCAC meetings were really important and had been fruitful, she reminded the media that the country had a foreign policy of non-alignment.
“The media should focus on and ask questions around real issues when they meet government ministers from very important trips like these, otherwise we will lose the real essence of such engagements,” she said.
Minster of Communications, Mr Swaray, said he was happy to report his quick achievements in starting the negotiations and signing the memorandum of understanding with StarTimes, a Chinese multinational media company with strong presence in Africa, to bolster the country’s digital migration process and transform the public broadcaster, SLBC, which is still analogue based and operated.
He also disclosed that he had discussions on the possibility of an e-government with Huawei Technologies, a Chinese multinational networking, telecommunications equipment, and services company and the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world.